Snowy owls find home near airport runways

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2009 - 11:47 PM

To a snowy owl, the runways looks like home: the tundra of northern Canada.

With its almost-constant landings and takeoffs, you would think the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would not attract birds, but to a snowy owl, the runways looks like home: the tundra of northern Canada.

The striking white raptors with huge yellow eyes are usually seen during in winter in northern Minnesota, but this year they have been spotted farther south and in greater numbers than usual. Two snowy owls have apparently staked their winter hunting claims at the airport. "I've seen the bird 50 feet from a runway," said journalist and bird expert Jim Williams, who writes the Wingnut blog for StarTribune.com. "This huge jet plane comes down and it didn't move, didn't flinch, didn't fly away. It just seemed oblivious to a million pounds of roaring airplane."

Snowy owls are territorial and solitary at this time of year, he said. Because they patrol large areas, the chances of an owl-jet collision are virtually impossible.

Canadian reports have suggested that 2008 was a prolific breeding year for the owls, so the larger numbers flying farther south may be the result of population pressure and the need for juveniles to find new hunting grounds.

Snowy owls prefer lemmings, said Williams, but they'll settle for rabbits, mice, voles and other rodents that live in the open spaces between runways.

The one seen most frequently at the airport is white with lots of black markings and is probably a juvenile male. Adult males are pure white.

Julia Ponder, executive director at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, said that her staff has treated nine snowy owls so far this winter, equal to the past three years combined. One with a wing fractured in three places is recuperating at the center after surgery. It was found Oct. 30 near a railroad track in Cottage Grove.

Postings on the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union website reported snowy owl sightings last week as far south as Dodge County in southeastern Minnesota and Murray County in southwestern Minnesota. The owls have been seen on posts, power lines and cell towers, but also at the airport on small mounds of snow plowed from runways.

"If you live on tundra, a pile of snow two feet high is a pretty big deal," Williams said. "It's an observation point."

Retired teacher Linda Whyte said that she has seen at least two snowy owls at the airport this winter. They can be difficult to spot because they are so well camouflaged, she said.

Whyte said that she and other birders are busy even in deep winter, looking for species such as Lapland longspurs, northern shrikes and snow buntings that live in the high arctic during the rest of the year. The snowy owl is always a favorite, she said. "I think about the harsh environment of the far northern provinces of Canada," Whyte said. "I have this sense of awe that these beautiful animals survive there."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388


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